Rookie TE Alex Smith says the team's veteran players keep everyone focused during practice
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began the season's most important week of practice on Tuesday by scaling back.
Originally scheduled to run their usual Wednesday routine, which includes a full-speed, two-hour practice in the afternoon, the Bucs decided in the morning to have a modified, half-speed workout instead. Thus, the team practiced for one hour without pads or helmets, basically stepping through their offensive and defensive assignments for the game.
The practice was a concession to the short week of preparation for Saturday's game and to bodies bruised by the grueling regular-season schedule. The time was far from wasted, however, as the Bucs still began the installation of the game plan, as they do every Wednesday. Head Coach Jon Gruden was very pleased with how his players responded to the practice format.
"It was a good one," he said. "We got a lot of reps. We got a lot done in mostly a walk-through fashion. That's a big part of it right now, getting familiar with this opponent and getting our bodies back to where we can come out and play a very fast, physical football team."
The Buccaneers appeared to have a loose locker room on Tuesday morning, which one might expect of a team with so many young players in key roles, but there was an underlying tone of seriousness courtesy of the Bucs' veteran core. Practice in the afternoon was business-like and focused.
"You don't want to get too tight for these types of games," said rookie tight end Alex Smith. "When you play tight it will affect your play. Guys just want to go out loose. We've been loose all season. We know what we're capable of and that's what we're going to do this week. In practice, coaches are really leaning on the veterans to make sure everybody's staying focused, staying on top of what they need to do."
Buccaneer players would not have complained, of course, had the original schedule been left intact, and they will be rested and ready for Wednesday's full-scale practice. Reaching the postseason takes too much effort over too long of a time – the foundation for the Bucs' division title was laid during offseason workouts last spring – to approach a playoff week with anything less than total concentration.
"We've worked hard and paid quite a price to get to this position, and you want to be at your best," said Gruden. "You've got to really concentrate. Preparation's important. You want to have fun no matter what wave of life you're in, but you want to take this seriously. This is business; this is why we play the game. This is why they play the regular season, to see who gets to compete for the championship. We've got a lottery ticket and at least we have an opportunity. We'll see what we do with it."
It is not unusual, either, for an NFL coach to tweak his weekly schedule in order to accommodate tired legs or tight muscles. There is an important balance to be struck between adequate preparation and adequate rest.
"Everybody's hurt, just some teams conceal it better than others," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "Everybody's banged up right now. That's what the playoffs are all about, a bunch of warriors going out there, and we're going to see who's going to last on Saturday. Hopefully it will be us, but we'll see. That's why we play the game."
A good opening practice was important for Gruden because it told him that his team had embraced the importance of every meeting and every workout this week. The Bucs won the NFC South with a win over New Orleans on Sunday, and they put themselves in position to take the title the weekend before that with an emotionally-draining overtime victory over Atlanta. By Tuesday morning, though, they had put those games in the past, as well as all the triumphs and defeats of the regular season. This is no time to celebrate 11 wins or a division title.
"The first thing I always try to do is explain to everyone that this is sudden-death," said Gruden. "If you win, you continue; if you lose, the season's over. We don't want to have that loser's mentality about, 'Gee, we overachieved in some people's eyes,' or, 'Hey, we've had a good year.' Baloney. You're not playing in this organization for any other reason than to compete for championships and we want to make the most of our opportunities."